Let’s start with a joke:
So have you ever heard those hoity-toity people who actually use ‘whom’ in conversation and you think “They must be from the wrong era. No one uses ‘whom’ in conversation anymore.” Well, you are almost correct. Very, very few people use ‘whom’ when speaking nowadays. There used to be more widespread use of the word ‘whom’ but this has shifted as the language has changed. The descriptive view of grammar and language is that all languages change and this change is okay – unless people start jklol-ing irl (but that’s me being a grammar obsessed English major).
The descriptive view of ‘who’ vs ‘whom’ essentially takes the stance that while ‘whom’ might be prescriptively correct, very few people either know the rules well enough to use it correctly or care enough to actually use ‘whom’ and that is just how English works now. But what if I told you that there was a crazy easy way to know when to use ‘who’ or ‘whom’? It really is crazy easy!
Let’s create an example scenario: You’re at home and the phone starts ringing (I know, I know, hardly anyone has home phones anymore, but just go with it). Anyway, the phone is ringing, but you are too busy reading this blog to go pick it up. Someone else in your family picks it up and calls to you, “Dear faithful blog reader, there is a phone call for you!” Annoyed with this interruption, you answer back…
How do you answer back? Do you use ‘who’ or ‘whom’? Are you ready for this easy tip??
Replace ‘who’ with ‘he’ and replace ‘whom’ with ‘him’. (I am personally an advocate for gender-neutral pronouns, but he/him works best in this scenario.)
So if you say “Who is calling?” you could also be saying “He is calling?” This switch still makes the sentence make sense. If you say “Whom is calling?” you really mean “Him is calling?” which just doesn’t make sense at all unless you speak toddler.
Pretty easy, right? Now let’s flip the scenario around. Someone else in your house is reading this blog and the phone rings. Since you’ve already read this blog and marveled at its excellence (or maybe not, but I hope you like it), it is now your turn to answer the phone. Then you call out, “Hey, there’s a phone call for you!” Assuming there is more than one person in the house, this can potentially cause confusion. Someone might shout back, “Phone call for who?” and this works, right?
Wrong. Let’s use the switch: “Phone call for he?” Eh, definitely not the right choice. Prescriptively, the correct response is “Phone call for whom?” because when we switch that, it is “Phone call for him?” and that totally works.
Want to learn more or see more examples? Check this out.
Now, there is a more complex, more grammar-ly reason for why we should sometimes use ‘whom’ instead of ‘who’, but I realize and respect that maybe you don’t want to dive down the rabbit hole of direct and indirect objects and that’s totally fine. I won’t force you to pay attention to that. Still, I know there are those of you out there who will read this and think, “Does this who/whom nonsense really matter? Who cares about being prescriptively correct so long as I can be understood?” This is a fair point, faithful reader, and one I cannot rebut: if you are a descriptivist and want to use ‘who’ all the time, that is your prerogative as an English speaker and odds are you will be understood.
BUT don’t you want to sound extra smart and educated? Of course, you are already smart and educated, but don’t you want to sound even more smart than you already are? Say you’re hanging out with your friends or at a party and you can easily navigate the tricky who/whom waters with aplomb. You will definitely dazzle your company with your savvy knowledge of the English language! Imagine yourself at a job interview and you can use who/whom correctly. That will be sure to make an impression on your potential new boss. You’ll leave after the interview and they’ll think, “I really want to hire that super smart sounding person. They clearly know what they are talking about.” Once you’re sitting behind that new desk, you’ll think back to this blog and send me a mental thank you (or maybe not. I’m more than sure you can land a sick job without my help).
So, yeah, only using ‘who’ is not the end of the world unless you are an 18th century writer, but those people aren’t exactly plentiful these days, are they? But if you want to sound really, really smart: use whom. You may still think that those people who use ‘whom’ (I am one of those people) sound hoity-toity, but you certainly can’t say that they sound stupid. Even if they use it incorrectly – and you will only know that they are using it wrong if you know the who/whom rules – they still sound smart and isn’t that what it’s all about?